In July 2017, a BBC documentary was aired featuring Beryl Dennis of the U.S. who was in search of a lost quilt made for British Queen Victoria by Dennis’ ancestor Martha Ann Erskine Ricks, a popular Liberian needlewoman in the 1890s. Extraordinary moment a former slave from Liberia gives a quilt to Queen Victoria in 1892
The documentary went into detail about how, some 130 years ago, Ricks, who was also a former slave, was bent on meeting Queen Victoria said to be the most powerful woman in the world at the time. She had come to admire the queen right after her coronation in 1838 and was so ready to meet her.
At long last, at age 76, Ricks made the journey from Liberia to London to meet the British Queen but she didn’t go alone. She went with a gift — a hand-stitched quilt of a coffee tree, which became the first Liberian quilt to be given as a diplomatic gift.
“At home, when a poor man comes to visit us on our farm, he never comes without some little present,” Ricks said to the London-based newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette, some days after the historic meeting. “How could I come to Queen Victoria, and bring her no present? I made it all myself, every stitch of it.”
According to the BBC, the visit made an impression on the queen that she wrote about it in her daily journal, describing Ricks as “very loyal… with a kind face.”
Ricks, who had spent 50 years waiting to give the gift, had been born into slavery in 1817 in Tennessee, United States. Her father George Erskine purchased the family’s freedom and when Ricks was 13, her father and the family of nine moved to Liberia in 1830. They moved to Liberia as part of the American Colonization Society’s initiative which argued that newly freed slaves would be better off in Africa.
A year after their arrival, Ricks lost most of her relatives to fever. She and two of her siblings were the only ones to survive. Ricks settled on a farm in Clay Ashland, about 10 miles east of the Liberian capital Monrovia. She grew crops like cocoa and coffee and vegetables. Eventually, she became a talented needlewoman and often won prizes at national fairs for her silk stockings, BBC said. Becoming a maker of quilts was not surprising, as it was a tradition brought over by the settlers from America.
Ricks would go on to inspire Liberian women to do quilting and when her desire to meet Queen Victoria was met, she did not think twice about making a quilt for her. She chose the quilt of a coffee tree because coffee trees, which were in abundance on her farm, were a “symbol of the potential of Liberia,” Dennis said of her relative Ricks. (Ricks was the great-aunt of Dennis’ mother).
Ricks also wanted to give the queen a gift because the UK was the first country to recognize Liberia’s independence. She later said in an interview that the queen also supported the anti-slavery movement.
Ricks’ visit to the queen in Windsor Castle on Saturday, July 16, 1892, made headlines. The two shook hands in the presence of courtiers and the queen’s relatives.
“She did not stay long in the golden room and I forgot what she said, but I shall never forget how she smiled and how she shook hands with me,” Ricks told the Pall Mall Gazette.
In 2017, the BBC reported that there is a photograph of former slave Ricks in London’s National Portrait Gallery, however, her coffee tree quilt is nowhere to be found.
Still, her visit and her quilt gift remain very important to Liberian history such that when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female president, she brought back the tradition of giving quilts as diplomatic gifts. Sirleaf gave a quilt of a cocoa tree to U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.